A confluence of critters

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Another sunrise, another paddle through a flooded river valley.  At Port Stephens the wide Karuah River meets the Myall as it meanders south, just behind the coastal dunes.

And where the water flowing from the network of wetlands and lagoons that is Myall Lakes joins the estuary, in a river delta protected from the destructive power of the Pacific waves, there’s Corrie Island.

A spot so fabulous for cautious amateur photographers in small and ancient boats, I circumnavigated it at the crack of dawn not once but twice over the silly season.  I may have been so exhausted I wept all over my Christmas crackers but it was worth it.

Just down the river from the RAMSAR protected wetlands at Myall Lakes, migratory birds that breed in the far north spend the arctic winters hanging out here.  I saw red knots (heads up: not very red in the non-breeding season) and grey tailed tattlers, far eastern curlews and bar tailed godwits.  In fact, I was treated to a bold dispay of the very barred tail of the bar tailed godwit, that tail that make the longest uninterrupted migration flight of any bird’s behind.

The eastern ospreys, in my previous experience elusive canopy lurkers, proved so indifferent to human proximity that I actually got bored with taking photos of them posing in the beautiful dawn light, and starting trying to snap the LBBs in the beachside brush, while the ospreys observed my inadequate efforts with golden eyes.

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A pair of eastern osprey?  The females are larger.

And just when you thought it couldn’t get any better, here come the dolphins.

The famous pod of Port Stephens dolphins – well, the easterly, sociable estuarine pod, one of two quite distinct groups that lives in the harbour – swung by to check me out.  I stopped still in the swell, watching them case the beach. At one point the still water by the boat upwelled and the tip of a bottle nose appeared above the surface for just a second or two a couple of metres off the bow.

island-with-dolphin-longer-fatter

Enter a caption

A couple of mornings later, I was back, having rashly promised my birdwatching brother dolphins, ospreys and eagles.  No need for a refund: they arrived one after another, right on cue.

And in between boat trips, it wasn’t just overeating and board games either.  There was also watching the local bird life overeating.

A baby sitella not quite sure how to handle the festive gift of a caterpillar…

And an Australian hobby enjoying Christmas dinner with us, swooping in to a branch above our holiday rental for some yuletide disembowelling.

I think we’ll be back.

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Burn-off at Bujwa Bay

The only trouble with living in paradise (apart from the long commute) is combustibility.  Our gorgeous view – mile after mile of incendiary eucalypts.  So the still, dry days and nights of autumn were thick with smoke, not from the big bad one we’re dreading, but hazard reduction burns in the bush all round the town.

Last time I went down to Bujwa Bay, it was the kind of cool and breathless day that must make the Rural Fire Service very very happy.   Mist hovered over the water in a bright line of morning light.  Forty minutes of silent paddling past the sleeping celebrities of Berowra Waters and I was round Oaky Corner and into the sunshine.

In the quiet there was a cryptic crunching noise.   Eventually, I spotted the pair of glossy black-cockatoos hidden amongst at the shore-line casuarinas.  My sense of being some kind of bird whisperer evaporated when, after fifteen minutes fooling around trying to get a decent shot of the cockies, I looked up to meet the eye of a bloody great big white-bellied sea eagle sitting directly above me.  And then, just round the corner, his pal taking in the rays.  They’re not stupid these birds, parked in the sunniest spot on the bay.

Having bonded with the local bird-life, when I heard about the burn-off, I was worried.   What happens to it all when the bush goes up in smoke?

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Egg the kayak entering Bujwa Bay after the burn-off

Drooping bark and grasstrees for crop square

Back-burnt grasstrees at Bujwa Bay

It’s not all bad news.

Harry Rechter describes  birds enjoying a feast during a controlled burn in Brisbane Waters National Park, not so far from here.
“Although fuel loads in the… heath and woodland were high, and flames soared above the tallest trees and shrubs, birds moved easily in front of and above the fire to appear minutes later on the blackened vegetation to feed on less fortunate insects and small lizards”.
I missed the raptors and the insectivores that no doubt turned up at Bujwa Bay at the first sign of smoke, looking for Cajun-style chow. But chances are these blackened grasstrees will be bursting into flower next time I paddle by.  I might see lyrebirds too, raking newly formed clearings.  Ground-feeders and grain-eaters – corellas for instance – return in force after fires have passed.  The little insectivores – thornbills, wrens and robins – that build nests close to the ground don’t miss the scorched canopy, and enjoy the bugs that flourish on the flush of new growth.  The carbonised shrubbery might even give me the chance of catching a blurry LBB or two on film.
Burnt crown and cliff

After the burn-off: partly scorched eucalypts

It’s a nice idea to think that the burn-offs that protect the town are a boon for the local plants and animals too.   And there’s a euphonious catchphrase that goes with that idea: “pyrodiversity begets biodiversity”. Fire incinerates the garden escapes and wakes the soilbank’s astounding store of dormant seeds. If we burn little and often, it’s been thought, we make a mosaic of habitats: patches of open space and newly germinating seeds; places burnt a few years back; and refuges long unburnt, full of craggy trees, hollow logs and dense undergrowth.

Pyrodiversity is popular amongst land management folks, and there’s some evidence that it works, at least in some places.  But not everyone buys the story that the frequent fires that protect people and property suit other critters too. Out in the mallee, near where I grew up, a fire and biodiversity project run by Deakin and LaTrobe universities has been laboriously checking the idea out.

For all the mallee’s underground lignotubers, ready to reshoot after fire, other parts of the ecosystem – large stretches of spinifex grass, for one, that shelter dragons and legless lizards – can take fifty or more years to return after a burn.  All of which makes me feel tremendously guilty about the swiftly abandoned spinifex-covered cubbies that my brother and sister and I used to make in the mallee scrub out the back of our house.  We will never know how many now-extinct species we displaced.

Away from regrets about the trail of ecological devastation I left in childhood and back to burn-off related angst. The research in these arid areas suggests it’s not pyrodiversity that’s important for a species-rich environment but having enough country that’s reached the right stage of maturity since the last fire.  As a person in mid-life, it pleases me to say that older vegetation often seems to sustain more species of birds, mammals and reptiles, including the rare ones. Even birds that like paddocks and open plains prefer unburnt land.  Some reptiles favour recently fired landscapes, but plant communities that haven’t been burnt for a decade or two harbor the richest variety of lizards and snakes.

I tried and failed to find the experts on biodiversity and fire on Hawkesbury sandstone.  But researchers studying both subtropical Queensland and foothill forests in Victoria said similar things.  A varied landscape is important, but

the richness of frugivore, insectivore and canopy forager assemblages is driven by the presence of structurally complex vegetation and old-growth canopy trees, which are more likely to be present in areas that have not experienced fire for a prolonged period of time (Burgess 2016)

Paston and colleagues put their conclusion bluntly: “prescribed fire is of little utility for the broadscale conservation of biodiversity” (2011, 3238).

And it seems, for birds at least, smaller patches of unburnt country won’t really do – it’s larger areas that haven’t seen fire for a while that are rich in species.  One bunch of researchers found that little islands of older habitat surrounded by new growth was grabbed by one or two aggressive predatory or colonial birds, rather than harbouring lots of different critters.  One recent paper, written about arid areas, sum it up:

Our results suggest a shift in current fire management thinking… is needed, away from a focus on creating small, unburnt patches towards preserving large, intact, unburnt areas (Berry 2015 493)

Burnt crown and dark silhouette from distance

What does all this mean for Bujwa Bay?

There was nothing moving in the incinerated trees on the ridgeline as I made my way up the creek at high tide, but then, it was early and damn chilly.  Even the herons had given up on fishing and were huddled in the trees, keeping their feet dry.

But the damp fringes of the mangroves were alive with silvereyes and yellow-faced honeyeaters, and I heard the plunk of a sacred kingfisher diving for breakfast.  Gullies are especially valuable habitats for birds at the best of times.  If they’re protected from fire by burning on the slopes nearby they can be an even better retreat when that big one comes.  The top of the creek was lush and green. I can only guess that the rangers and RFS know what they’re doing.

White faced heron in tree 2 square

Chilly looking white-faced heron

In the light of recent research, Taylor and his colleagues comment dryly “current fire management for avifaunal conservation may require substantial refinement” (Taylor, 2012, 525).

But let’s not fool ourselves.  Around here at least, fire management is not for the avifauna.  It’s for me, and people like me, who choose to live high on a hill, surrounded by the beautiful, burnable bush.

Additional references.  Because the whole thing is really is quite complicated and you might want to check I didn’t get it totally wrong.

Berry, L. Lindenmeyer, D, Driscoll, D. (2015) “Large unburnt areas, not small unburnt patches, are needed to conserve avian diversity in fire-prone landscapes” Journal ofApplied Ecology Vol 52 Issue 2

Burgess, Emma, and Maron, Martine (2016) “Does the response of bird assemblages to fire mosaic properties vary among spatial scales and foraging guilds?” Landscape Ecology March 2016, Volume 31, Issue 3,pp 687–699

Doty, A., Stawski, C, Nowack, J., Bondarenco, A. (2015) “Increased lyrebird presence in a post-fire landscape” Australian Journal of Zoology 63,9–11

Hope Ben (2012) “Short-term response of the long-nosed bandicoot, Perameles nasuta, and the southern brown bandicoot, Isoodon obesulus obesulus, to low-intensity prescribed fire in heathland vegetation” Wildlife Research 39(8) 731-744

Korczynskyj, Luke and Byron B. Lamont (2005) “Grasstree (Xanthorrhoea preissii) recovery after fire in two seasons and habitats” Australian Journal of Botany, 53 509-515

Kelly, Luke T. Andrew F. Bennett, Michael F. Clarke, and Michael A. McCarthy (2015) “Optimal fire histories for biodiversity conservationConservation Biology, Volume 29, No. 2, 473–485

Lindenmayer, David B., Wade Blanchard, Lachlan McBurney, David Blair, Sam C. Banks, Don A. Driscoll, Annabel L. Smith and A. M. Gill (2014) “Complex responses of birds to landscape-level fire extent, fire severity and environmental driversDiversity and Distributions 20, 467–477

Nimmo, D, Kelly, L., Spence-Bailey, L, Watson, S.J. Taylor, R.S., Clarke, M.F and Bennett, A.F. (2012) “Fire Mosaics and Reptile Conservation in a Fire-Prone Region” Conservation Biology 27 (12)

Pastro, Louise L., Christopher R. Dickman and Mike Letnic (2011) “Burning for biodiversity or burning biodiversity? Prescribed burn vs. wildfire impacts on plants, lizards and mammals”  Ecological Applications Vol. 21, No. 8, pp. 3

Robinson, Natasha, Leonard, Steven, Bennett, Andrew, Clarke, Michael (2016) “Are forest gullies refuges for birds when burnt? The value of topographical heterogeneity to avian diversity in a fire-prone landscape” Biological Conservation 200, pp.1-7

Sitters, Holly , Di Stefano, Julian, Christie, Fiona, Swan, Matthew, York, Alan (2016) “Bird functional diversity decreases with time since disturbance” Ecological Applications, 26(1), pp. 115–127

Smith, Annabel, C.Michael Bull, Don Driscoll (2013) “Successional specialization in a reptile community cautions against widespread planned burning and complete fire suppression”Journal of Applied Ecology 2013, 50, 1178–118

Paper roads, private rivers

It’s been a long time since I have had a close encounter with a tinny.  Perhaps it’s being on the river for the winter sunrise, but I’ve been finding myself all alone on the water for weeks now.

Which is mostly – in fact, almost entirely – a good thing.  But rattling down the road to Mangrove Creek last weekend,  I began to have doubts.  Could I hear the sound of duelling banjos in the distance? Was I about to make an unplanned appearance in the sequel to Deliverance?  (This is not a film to select as a fundraiser for your local canoeing club, by the way)

What was it that was freaking me out?  Was it the bags slung over the heads of the traffic lights as I crossed an abandoned stretch of the Pacific Highway? The rubble-flanked track plunging down the escarpment into the rainforest, a lyrebird breaking cover  the only thing on the road for miles around?  The isolated tumbledown houses, walled in by rusted-out cars and half-drowned boats?  The total lack of mobile coverage?  Or the large signs at every turnoff: “Private property!  Keep out, city slickers, or you WILL be disembowelled!”

Yep, that’s it: that nasty feeling that I might be chased, possibly at gunpoint, off someone’s private land.  This particular stretch of river – owned by the Crown like most tidal waterways, surrounded on all sides by national parks and serviced by public roads – is particularly tricky to access.  Glenworth Valley, for instance, a patch of acreage between Popran Creek and the National Park of the same name, offers pony riding, quad bikes and guided kayak tours  to cashed up visitors (and very nice they are too, I’m sure).  But if you want to launch your own craft from there that’ll be $50, thank you very much.  Maybe as a nation-building project we should institute publicly funded zip lines so kayakers can hurtle directly from the towering if unprofitable sandstone rockfaces in the national parks to the miles and miles of marketable creeks below.

It’s not getting any better, either, in NSW anyway.  The current state government is selling off thousands of Crown roads – paper roads as they’re sometimes called, since they exist mostly on maps – sketchy unformed tracks or riverside reserves, sometimes illegally fenced off, across private land.  But flimsy and flyaway as they might sound, paper roads are routes in to rivers and other wild places to anglers, bushwalkers and kayakers.  And they’re being erased from the map, to the faraway ker-ching of cash registers.  Perhaps that was the noise I heard in the distance, not red-necks with banjos, after all.

Possibly because Shooters and Fishers’ Party hold two seats in the NSW Upper House,  anglers get a once-over at the Crown roads put up for sale before they go.  Perhaps we need to set up a Canoeists, Backpackers and Assorted Outdoor Types With No Aspirations to Kill Things Party to get a gander too…. Mmmm, thinking about it, maybe the CBAOTNAKT already exists

But, without the comforting presence of my local CBAOTNAKT Member of Parliament in a kayak beside me, I was distinctly on edge last Sunday as I parked up next to a semi-collapsed shed largely supported by a jumble of discarded oil cans, non-functional bicycles and rolls of ancient carpet ideal for concealing the bodies of trespassers.  Did this private dump signify total indifference or was it the rural property owner’s equivalent of the pile of discarded undergarments on the bedroom floor, mess in a place so private you expect no other eyes on it at all?  With the valley under a blanket of mist, I hoped I wouldn’t find out.

Stumbling on an apparently abandoned riverside caravan park in the fog didn’t reassure me either.  We all know desolate motels and the like are the optimal spot for a horror movie – leaving aside sororities full of nubile sophomores, of course (I think I’m fairly safe on that front).  There was a spooky stillness about the place.

And then some ducks took off with a clatter and the channel changed.  A pair of kingfishers chased each other, squeaking and swerving in and out of the mangroves’ eves and old blokes in shorts appeared out of kitchen doors, morning coffee in hand, to have a natter and a tinker with the outboard.

I love to watch the day unfurl from its cocoon of mist.    A silence shared with a white-bellied sea eagle; the hunting herons and the whirling swallows apparitions in the cloud.  Then the fog parts and the first wattle-blossom catches in the morning light.  Before you know it, the blue river is dazzling and it’s time to go home.

As I paddled the last few hundred metres to the car, I saw figures on the shore, and my heart sank.  I don’t know I was more afraid of aggrieved landowners demanding a handful of cash or a mob of ferals threatening to slash my tyres.

It turned out to be a trio of local teenage boys not old enough to have a licence, filling in their long, long, long country Sunday with a walk along the river.  They were much more sheepish to find an adult in their hangout zone than I was to be there.  And I remembered: when you’re a kid, you have no private property – everything belongs to someone else.

Nine herons hunting

Nine herons hunting… could it be the beginning of a carol for Christmas-in-July?  Not a bad sound track, perhaps, for a paddle on a wintry 25th down Mooney Mooney Creek.

There were (roundabout) eight cormorants, some of them cacking….

… three posing pelicans

… two eagles soaring

And a kingfisher in a mangrove tree (no photo, naturally).

But realistically, I could only get all the way through the twelve days of anti-Christmas by including the many invisible mud-loving animals that all those herons were stalking.  And I’m not quite sure if I have the alliterative and euphonious verbs to use for them.  Twelve isopods…. idling? Eleven worms a-wobbling? Ten crustaceans crawling?

Even if it can’t offer swans a-swimming or geese a-laying, Mooney Mooney does pretty well for both visible and invisible animals, considering how damn noisy it is.

I first started dreaming about paddling this creek as we swooped above it, across the lofty freeway bridge.  It’s a gorgeous structure, if you are partial to well-formed concrete: elegantly curved, arching vertiginously above the treetops of Brisbane Water National Park.  An endless stream of cars and semis cross the valley on the F1, the main route north from Sydney, on the tallest road bridge in Australia, the still water 75 metres below.

The Pacific Highway, looping its way down to its own modest crossing point, has plenty of traffic too: bikers switchbacking their way up the old road. This Saturday, I didn’t see a soul in three hours on the river, but for a mile or more I could hear the hiss of compression brakes and the revving of engines.

And yet, if I had to pick a place, of all the waterways I’ve paddled so far, to find and fail to take a picture of a kingfisher, this rowdy river is the one I’d choose.  The traffic noise seems to keep the humans at bay, but not the herons.  What’s going on with the wildlife around here?

There’s plenty of evidence that traffic noise bothers birds.  I particularly like a recent experiment where researchers planted speakers in a long line to create a phantom road.  That’s just what the freeway feels like from Mooney Mooney Creek – a road you can hear all over but mostly can’t quite see.  The phantom road, with its invisible traffic masking mating and alarm calls and the sound of approaching predators, cut numbers by a quarter, and drove two species away from the area entirely.

Some cope better than others.  High pitched songs are less likely to be blocked out by the roar of traffic, and so squeaky voiced birds are more likely to hang around in noisy places.  Species with a little vocal versatility often start to sing a bit higher, a little slower or in purer tones, just to be heard.

If you’re carnivorous, being able to hear the critters scuttling around in the bushes is a boon. Seeds and nectar are less likely to make a break for it, so background noise seems to be less of a big deal for the plant-eaters.  Also, birds that feed on the ground seem to mind the noise less – perhaps there’s more obstacles between them and the din.

Everyone agrees that in loud places, birds spend more time on the alert for predators – a high maintenance lifestyle.  That said, some nest-robbers are also put off by the rumble of traffic, so for some species, chicks hatching in noisy nests have a better chance of survival.  If you can handle the decibels, you may have a competitive advantage.

What does all this tell me about the plentiful birdlife of Mooney Mooney Creek?  Thinking about it, I saw high-pitched squeakers, mud-hugging stalkers and sharp-eyed hunters (see, I’m getting into the swing of this avian carol singing thing!)  I’m guessing striated herons don’t echolocate for crabs.  This white-faced pair were happy to ignore not just the distant thunder of trucks but the much more immediate annoyance of a nosy canoeist with a camera.

“The mud is like a Christmas tree”, my eight year old said, hearing the story of my low-tide adventures, “and the bird were excited to find all their presents”.

When the eating is this good, it seems, the soundtrack scarcely matters.

References

Francis, C.D. (2015) “Vocal traits and diet explain avian sensitivity to anthropogenic noise” Global Change Biology 21(5), 1809-1820

Francis, CD and Jesse R Barber (2013). A framework for understanding noise impacts on wildlife: an urgent conservation priority. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 11: 305–313. http://dx.doi.org/10.1890/120183

Francis, CD, Ortega, C and Cruz, A. (2009) “Noise Pollution changes avian communities and species interactions” (2009) Current Biology 19(16) pp.1415-19

Patricelli, Gail L. and Jessica L. Blickley (2006) “Avian communication in urban noise: causes and consequences of vocal adjustment” from The Auk 123(3): 639-49

Rest day on the Tour de Hawkesbury

Plunging down the switchbacks of Berowra Waters Road with a canoe strapped on top as a weekend dawn breaks is a hair raising experience, for a newbie driver like me anyway.  At any moment, heavy breathing MAMILs (Middle Aged Males In Lycra according to our friend Bruce Ashley, author of Bike It! Sydney and Cycling around Canberra) might suddenly loom out of the fog in the middle of the not-quite-two-lane road.

They’ve swooped down through Galston Gorge, across the only bridge, passed swiftly through Arcadian horsey country, and after a moment of quietly gazing out at the marina as they cross the ferry, they’re battling the steep 200 metres ascent up to the ridge.  It would seem rather cruel if, after all that effort, my kayak shot off the roof in an emergency stop and impaled them before they got that well-earned coffee.

Scary as this drive is, it’s not quite as nerveracking as coming back from the Hawkesbury up the Old Pacific Highway on a misty morning – a journey that is begging to be made into a terrifying but addictive computer game called something like “Drive of Doom” or “Death Dodgems”.

Peering through the billowing mist round the hairpin bends, you hope you’ll spot the scattered packs of labouring MAMILs in time to slide right, all the while praying that a mob of motorbikes doesn’t choose that moment to come roaring up from behind to wipe themselves out on your rear window.  Or that an oncoming vehicle doesn’t take the next tight corner wide and smash into you headlong.  The reward if you win a game is obvious: a triumphant stop high above the clouds at “Pie in the Sky“, a place where the lambs lie down with the lions, or at least, the road cyclists eat pies with the bikies.

But not this weekend.  Not a single specimen of the MAMIL, keystone species in our local ecosystem, to be seen.  What’s going on around here?

Eventually, as I hauled the kayak off the car and wrestled it into the water, I worked it out.  The MAMILs have been up all night watching the Tour de France.  At two o’clock in the morning they were gripped as Mark “The Manx Missile” Cavendish floated past Andre “The Gorilla” Greipel to claim his first stage win in two years, his twenty sixth stage in the Tour.  And they’re still curled up in bed, knees bent under the covers, dreaming they’re Australia’s next Cadell Evans.  Middle aged, but still contenders.

The river was very very quiet too.  In February this year, I ventured for the first time into the brackish winding creeks that feed Calabash Bay.  It was fish paradise.  Despite my complete indifference to fish as a meal, pet or leisure pursuit, the sheer numbers of tiny transparent spratlings leaping from the water and darting between the mangrove roots was eye opening.

Even nearly twenty years ago, just after the high point of algae blooms and floating maritime corpses in Berowra Creek, research into estuary processes discovered twenty nine species of fish up and down the water.  Marra Marra Creek, in the lower reaches, with its saltmarshes and long stretch of mangroves, was the richest, but even upstream there were flathead and flounder, gobies and mullet and perchlets, silver biddies and pacific blue eye.

But this weekend, nothing.  I went to see the fish and it was out.

One azure kingfisher was so weak with hunger it sat exhausted on a waterside twig in full view long enough for me to take a numerous terrible blurry photographs.  If I keep going out in these lean times, I may finally get the chance to take a sharp, closeup shot of an emaciated glinting blue bird spiralling slowly downriver on its back.

Despite my glass-half-empty-and-probably-tainted-with-nuclear-fallout tendencies, I’m pretty sure the lack of visible fish is a natural thing, part of the cycle of life.  Most of the inhabitants of the creek spawn in spring and summer, so the tiddlers of the summertime shallows are no doubt happily traversing deeper waters now, invisible and unknowable to those who drift involuntarily into unconsciousness at the mere mention of rod, bait or tackle.

There must have been a few fish around, I guess, along with the amphipods, the isopods, the molluscs and the worms. I saw a few blokes slumped gloomily in tinnies, a handful of great cormorants and the contractual obligation pair of white faced heron in every cove and mudflat.

My ship building neighbour rates his sequence of ancient clapped out Mercedes according to the number of cows featured in the interior trim (“a two cow Merc”, “a four cow Merc” etc).  I’m thinking I should start rating my canoeing trips similarly, according to the number of white-faced herons I see during the day.  This Saturday was, by my calculation, at least a nine-heron day, and that’s not giving myself extra points for seeing the birds in pairs, hedgehog like in their full breeding regalia.

But all in all, there still plenty of solitude to be found out there in the mist.  I’m not sure, but I may have discovered a new form of white-water canoeing.  It may not be high-octane, but it’s got to be higher energy than watching Gabriel Gate on late night TV.  I think I like it.

Waterbirds of the Wyong River

Today, further adventures in Quaternary estuarine geology – a paddle along the lower reaches of the Wyong River, where it meets Tuggarah Lake.  With a brief stop at Lake Macquarie to photograph this heron hunting, that makes two young and lovely coastal lagoons in one day.  And both fine places to be a waterbird. After my recent insensitive remarks about coastal lagoons being fed by underwhelming little creeks, I’m a bit surprised we didn’t have any unfortunate upending incidents today.  The mighty Wyong River is forgiving.  And generous with darters.

And egrets, both intermediate and great.  I’ve got a feeling there’s one of each here.  Despite the name, the sure fire way of distinguishing them isn’t size, but a dark line that runs from the base of the beak beneath the eye.  The great egret’s commissural line runs behind its eye, the intermediate’s stops short just below.  But I still think you’re great, mate, despite your middle-of-the-road name and your meagre eye liner.

On the bank amongst the ducks, doing its best to be invisible, a clueless young black bittern.  Obviously it wasn’t listening when its parents gave it the talking to about bitterns hiding coyly in the riverside rushes.

And of course, the contractual obligation pelican on a post.  Thanks your offerings, this sunny Sunday, Wyong River.

Low tide at Gunyah Beach

“The sea or not the sea?”

That was the question churning through my brain, as I set out for my first solo kayak on the Hawkesbury proper.  Let’s be kind and say I’m not a risk taker (there’s a reason I’m fond of chickens).  And my canoe is properly vintage, made out of wafer-thin plywood back in the early 70s, and now held together by a rich tapestry of epoxy based products and amateurishly applied fibreglass.  Don’t get me wrong – it was the best $100 I ever spent on ebay but our Egg is no ocean-going liner.

But setting off on a sunny Saturday morning with a light off-shore wind and a slack tide, I thought my decrepit boat and I might just be able to brave a three kilometre paddle along the widest reaches of the Hawkesbury Estuary, from Brooklyn’s Parsley Bay to Gunyah Beach in Kuring-gai Chase national park.

About midway across the 700 metres at the mouth of Porto Bay, I realised the weird rise and fall of the boat was swell, a new and disturbing experience for me as a canoeist.  Well, it was either swell or the kayak was being regularly nudged sideways by bull sharks.  Either way, I was not happy.   It didn’t help that the choppy water was full of floating branches, torn down by  last week’s big winds.  If the sharks didn’t get me, I’d be turned into a giant vegetarian shishkebab by a surfing pine tree.  I was in the ocean, and it was scary.

Of course, the Hawkesbury “River” is, kinda, the sea – a flooded river valley that has its tidal limit a hundred kilometres or thereabouts from its mouth.  Whenever I think about this, I imagine how strange it must have been for the people living on the plains that once stretched out from the current coastline under what is now the surface of the sea, as the ocean crept slowly up, over ten thousand years, claiming the valleys carved out by the river, pushing people before it into the hills.  Now that’s really going into the unknown.

In the end, of course, I made my little paddle with no problems at all, apart from an annoying lack of photographic evidence that there was ever anything to fear.  Gunyah Beach (boat access only) even had its own lounge suite on which an unnerved canoeist might rest and recover.  I’m pretty sure the contractual obligation white-faced heron had just stood up after a cup of tea and a chocolate digestive as I arrived.

Stumbling through the mud around the beach-side lagoon, I found myself in a maelstrom of silvereyes and white cheeked honeyeaters.  I’ve come to realise binaural hearing is a real asset for bird watching.  With one dodgy cochlea I spent half my time whipping my head wildly from one side to the other to work out where the chirping was coming from.  In the end taking random pictures of the bushes seemed the best way to avoid permanent neck injury. I was disproportionately pleased with the few photos that worked out. There’s something particularly delightful about the most minor victories over timidity and incompetence, even if you can’t convincingly frame pootling around in boats in your estuarine backyard as some kind of heroic feminist re-enactment of The Old Man and the Sea.